Lesson of Subtle Influence
Measured against the great forces at play in the world, a butterfly fluttering its wings doesn’t seem to possess much power. But an ancient Chinese proverb says that the power of a butterfly’s wings can be felt on the other side of the world.
Chaos has shown ways in which this proverb may be literally true. As a metaphor, the chaos idea changes the way we think about power and influence in the world and in our individual lives.
The Secret of the Amplified Small
The scientific insight into the butterfly’s power came about through the work of Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist who is considered one of the founders of chaos theory. Lorenz was testing a simple model of weather prediction. The model plugged three kinds of data—wind speed, air pressure, and temperature—into three equations that were coupled together in such a way that the results calculated from one equation were fed into the others as raw data and then the process was repeated—in other words, a mathematical feedback loop. In this way, the data of a current weather situation were wound around and around into a simulation of what future weather should look like.
Lorenz had completed a long calculation and needed to doublecheck his results. Because this was in the days before high-speed computers, he decided to take a shortcut, carrying out the computations to only three decimal places instead of his original six. He knew that by doing this he would be introducing a small error of around 1/10 of a percent and expected there would be a similar small degree of difference in his weather prediction.
He was consequently shocked at how little similarity the new weather prediction bore to the previous one that had used the same numbers rounded off to six decimals. Lorenz quickly realized what the culprit was. When the results of each stage of his computation were fed back, or iterated, as raw data for the next, the small initial difference between the two sets of data was quickly magnified by feedback into a large difference. The deductions Lorenz drew from this made him one of the founders of chaos theory.
Because weather is a chaotic system full of iterating feedback, it is nonlinear, which makes it incredibly sensitive to tiny influences. This sensitivity comes from the fact that even small increases in temperature, wind speed, or air pressure cycle through the system and can end up having a major impact. Thus, Lorenz pondered, echoing the Chinese proverb, “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”
After Lorenz had made his discovery, scientists began to see nonlinear “butterfly” effects all around them in complex systems: the few grains of pollen setting off an individual’s attack of hay fever, the small trigger of sensations that causes a whole bundle of neurons to fire, the rumor that causes a stock to fall, the fast spreading grievance that ignites a prison riot. Any one of those internal butterfly loops can become amplified through feedback until it transforms the whole situation.
Humans may continue to dream of the power of prediction and control, but chaos theory tells us that most self-organized systems are laced with countless butterflies of many subtle varieties and colors. In nature, society, and our daily lives, chaos rules through the butterfly’s power.
The Power of the Powerless
Obsessions with power surround us today: the power of money, the power of personality, mind power, computing power, organizational power, political power, the power of love, the power of sex, the power of youth, the power of religion, the power to change our genes or our self-images, firepower, the power relationships between one group and another. We believe
that if we had the power to control the situation, we would feel more secure. The idea of control creates an apparent distinction between the controller and what’s controlled.
The truth is our obsession with power may be simply the symptom of our sense of our own powerlessness. All around us vast impersonal organizations and societal forces seem to be shaping our destiny. The spread of voice-mail systems has made it almost impossible to speak to a live human being. Because there seems to be nothing we can do about this, we choke with rage when the system cuts us off at the end of forty-five minutes of pushing buttons in response to a machine.
When we say we feel powerless, we mean that we don’t feel powerful enough to fight the corporation, the bureaucracy, the system, the other person’s strong personality, or even some wayward “other” lurking within our own psyches. We’re outgunned.
“Adrift in a world of the powerful, how do we proceed?”
The usual answer is: “Try to get some of that power!“
But chaos theory suggests another answer. It says that complex and chaotic systems—which means most of the systems we encounter in nature and in society—cannot accurately be predicted or exclusively controlled. Neither can rigid systems be easily budged. However, there’s a loophole.
What if we acted through the myriad tiny feedback loops that hold a society together? Chaos tells us that each one of us has an unrecognized but enormous influence on these loops. Chaos suggests that although we may not have power of the controller in the traditional sense, we all possess the “butterfly power” of subtle influence. What is “subtle influence“?
Even though we may believe we live in free and democratic societies, we’ve all had firsthand experience of the collusion and automatism. David Whyte, poet and corporate consultant, tells of an employee in a large corporation (we’ll call him George) who attended a staff meeting where the boss asked everyone to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, the boss’s new business plan. Most staff members were aware that the plan was poor, with little chance for success, but it was clear what answer the boss wanted. So most of the staffers said 10. One brave person ventured to say 9½. When George’s turn came, he was tempted to give the truthful answer, which would be “close to zero,” but he, too, gave in and said 10.
In chaos terms, the systems that operate on collusion and automatism are obviously not creative open systems. Rather, their behavior is dominated by a relatively small number of negative feedback loops. The countless small loops—like the greengrocer’s sign—are not an expression of creative degrees of freedom, but represent microloops locked together in a way that creates one big obsessive repetitive loop that chaos scientists call a ‘limit cycle‘.
‘Limit cycle‘ systems are those that cut themselves off from the flux of the external world because a great part of their internal energy is devoted to resisting change and perpetuating relatively mechanical patterns of behavior. To survive in such rigid and comparatively closed systems, everyone must resign a little—or often a great deal—of their individuality by blending into the automatism. Those who rise “to the top” in such systems are generally the ones who use empty phrases, those mindless formulas that keep the mechanism of collusion together.
Limit cycles can also operate within an individual’s psychology. We all know the sort of person who goes through life repeating the same mistakes. He gets out of one destructive relationship only to plunge into another, all the time protesting that this time it’s really going to be different.
Our attempt to control or overpower limit-cycle-dominated systems more often than not end up simply reinforcing them. The interwovenness of feedback loops in chaotic systems suggests that in the end it is always the controller who will be controlled—the would-be overpowerer who will be the one overpowered. Chaos says that treating such systems as if we were separate from them is being blind to the truth.
But if it’s true that repetitive, power-obsessed systems are held together by our own collusion within the coupled feedback of the limit cycle, then that implies our influence must be enormous. It suggests our influence could be used in a positive way to bring about a more open, creative environment.
The Power of Subtle Influence
Subtle influence is what each of us exerts, for good or ill, by the way we are. When we’re negative or dishonest, this exerts a subtle influence on others, quite aside from any direct impact our behavior might have. Our attitude and being forms the climate others live in, the atmosphere they breathe. We help supply the nutrients for the soil where others grow. If we’re genuinely happy, positive, thoughtful, helpful, and honest, this subtly influences those around us. Everybody knows this when it comes to kids. Kids respond to who you are far more than to what you say.
Many of the world’s wisdom traditions teach that an action should not only take into account the welfare of others in the future, it should be based on the authenticity of the moment, on being true to oneself, and exercising the values of compassion, love, and basic kindness. Positive butterfly power involves a recognition that each individual is an indivisible aspect of the whole and that each chaotic moment of the present is a mirror of the chaos of the future.
In a general way, it’s not hard to distinguish negative and positive influences. A negative remark can harden our egos. Negative people appear to be locked into a limit cycle of selfishness, greed, anger, disregard for others, and ruthless ambition. Their lust for power has a mechanical quality about it. But we do need to be careful about our judgments. What at first blush may seem a negative influence could turn out to be positive.
We feel uplifted by a smile or a kind word, yet the apparently positive only works creatively to keep the system open when done with authenticity and in good faith. An educational movement in North America during the 1970s was based on the principles of operant conditioning. Educational theorists argued that because punishment was out of date, children should be encouraged to learn and become well-behaved through a system of rewards called “positive reinforcement.” Teachers’ instructional manuals contained a hierarchy of reinforcers that were to be learned by heart: “Great,” “You’ve done good work today,” and even, “You are worthy of my love.”
Teachers were encouraged to practice positive facial gestures in front of a mirror. In short, in the name of positive influence, teachers were being forced to behave in mechanical and inauthentic ways that did not reflect the truth of each individual situation. Of course, many children saw through the system and probably despised their teachers for the ways they were acting. Others became dependent on praise to the extent that a neutral remark by the teacher became equated with punishment.
Positive butterfly power goes hand in hand with a need for basic humility, because we realize that the key to change doesn’t so much lie in a single individual’s action as in the way many different feedback loops interact. In terms of our chaos metaphor, “living in truth” is the simple (though not always easily achieved) course of opening ourselves up to uncertainty, discovering the edge between our individuality and the universal, and acting from that discovery. This is the real power of the powerless. In our authentic realization of the truth of the moment lies our ability to deeply, if humbly, influence even the rigid systems built on automatism and empty phrases.
‘Trickster‘ figures show the way creativity can overcome overwhelming odds. Tricksters see beyond the limits of the system and bend the rules. For this reason, tricksters make rigid organizations and governments uneasy. Yet it is just such organizations that need them most.
Most of the world’s other peoples emphasize myths and enacted dramas that focus on comedy. Whereas tragedy is concerned with struggles of power, comedy is about tricksters, ambiguity, and the transformation of roles. Whereas tragedy invariably ends in death, comedy ends in marriage, a continuation of society and fertility brought about through tricking the fates, playing on ambivalence, and the crisscrossing of boundaries and limits.
Faced with a formidable opponent, Oriental martial arts masters use a trickster’s creative approach. The idea is not to match strength for strength, but to use an intelligent response to the moment to overturn the opponent. The martial artist yields to the power and force of his opponent and applies a mere butterfly’s worth of leverage at the crucial instant to turn a frontal attack back onto itself. The essence lies in an attitude of gentleness and calm in the face of extreme violence.
Butterfly power underlines just how deeply influential ordinary individuals can be in society. But it also points to the fundamental humility necessary to exert this influence in a positive way. As with the constant random fluctuations in the heated pan of water, we can never be sure how important our own individual contribution will be. Our action may be lost in the chaos that surrounds us, or it may join with one of those many loops that sustain and replenish an open, creative community. On rare occasions, it may even be taken up and amplified until it transforms the entire community into something new.
We can’t know the immediate outcome. We may never know if or how or when our influence will have an effect. The best we can do is act with truth, sincerity, and sensitivity, remembering that it is never one person who brings about change but the feedback of change within the entire system.
Butterfly power results from the fact that, as John Donne put it, “no man is an island.” We’re all a part of the whole. Every single element in the system influences the direction of all other things in the system.
Butterfly power allows for the impossible. The impossible was something we did naturally as children. Later, we grew up into a more rigid conceptual world where boundaries were absolute and the impossible was locked away in a separate compartment from the practical. But chaos theory reminds us that the real world is constantly in flux and any context can and will change. We may discover tomorrow a way of doing things that is inconceivable today.
So although cynical realists argue that human nature can never change from the greedy, self-centered, hierarchical, power-driven consciousness that has dominated history, chaos theory opens the door on such change. It suggests that consciousness is not confined to what is just taking place privately within our individual heads. Consciousness is an open system like the weather. It is shaped by language, society, and all our daily interactions. Each one of us is an aspect of the collective consciousness of the world, and the contents of that consciousness are constantly being altered by the forces of chaos that each of us expresses. The strategies of human nature are not absolutely fixed. Through chaos, one individual or a small group of individuals can deeply and subtly influence the entire world.